Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Beach Tale: Writing the Cozy Mystery

When I tell people “I write cozy mysteries”, about half of the people say, “Wow.  That’s cool.”  Pause while they think about that.  “What the hell is a cozy mystery?”  The other half say, “Wow. That’s cool.”  Then they pull out their i-phones and Google the term.  Well, some Google it.  Most just continue on through life never really knowing. 
So let’s take a moment to talk about everything you’ve always wanted to know about cozy mysteries, but were afraid to ask.  First stop, Merriam Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary.    
Mystery: a piece of fiction dealing usu. with the solution of a mysterious crime. 

Cozy:  Enjoying or affording warmth and ease.  Snug.

So “cozy mystery” is an oxymoron, of sorts, but it is a term used to define a sub-genre of mystery that has a warm fuzzy feeling about it.  Think Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple.  Or Murder, She Wrote’s Jessica Fletcher.  Or the intrepid Girl Detective, Nancy Drew.  Yes, there’s a distasteful criminal element involved, but the sleuth is so charming and clever that the reader thinks of them as a friend and enjoys tagging along on the adventure.  It’s the kind of book you want to grab a cup of tea and a fleece blanket then curl up by a nice crackling fire to enjoy.  A “cozy” scenario, you’ll agree, and hence the term.
So now that we understand the term, let’s talk about writing one. 
Cozy mysteries, known colloquially as cozies, are considered by many to be the “fluff” of the mystery genre.  Many writers mistakenly think they are also the “fluff” of the mystery-writing business.  But those are the writers that never actually sat down to write one.   It’s much harder than it looks because there are so many “rules” that must be followed in order for it to fall in this very narrowly-defined sub-genre.  At the same time, those tight parameters give a sameness or copy-cat feel to stories.  So the challenge lies in writing an interesting, believable, entertaining and most importantly fresh and different mystery while “coloring within the lines,” so to speak.
“What are the rules?” you ask.  Here are the Top Ten:    
·        The main focus of the story is a murder, and the solving thereof, with the evil deed occurring before the start of the book.  It’s most common to have the opening scene centered on the sleuth stumbling across the dead body.  But if you absolutely, positively can not start the book at this point, there is some leeway here, but the body must appear sometime within the first few chapters. 
·        The main character is an amateur sleuth who is sweet, smart, spunky, tenacious, and (usually) female.
·        The amateur sleuth has a “cozy” hobby (like cooking or gardening or knitting or bird watching or underwater basket weaving or—okay, you get the idea.)
·        The setting is a small town filled with lots of characters who are witty, wacky, wisecrack-y and wildly endearing. 
·        No—as in zero, zilch, nada—violence.  All that blood and guts stuff occurs “off stage” and is merely alluded to.     
·        Ditto for sex.  The characters must keep their clothes on at all times—with the one exception being some sort of wardrobe malfunction in the name of comedic relief, not titillation.
·        Save the forensics, ballistic, splatter-pattern interpretations and other CSI-type investigative tools for the hard-core mysteries.  Cozies are more about assembling clues (like a gum wrapper from a type of gum only chewed by the villain) and puzzling out the conclusion.  
·        Red-herrings (sending the sleuth off on wild goose chase) are a must.  The more, the merrier.  
·        The killer is in plain sight and plays a cameo early on.  (Introducing a killer who has no connection with anyone in the story and steps out from a darkened doorway in the final scene will get you blackballed from the genre.)
·        Cozy mysteries are more often than not written in the first person, or at least third person limited.  

          Given all the above rules, the last one, in my opinion, is the hardest.  Having a single Point of View (POV) character means said character needs to be present in every single scene.  This prevents the writer from building tension, perhaps, by hoping over the villain’s head to show him laying a trap for the sleuth when she takes her pocket pooch to the groomer one morning.  Even the most talented writer is hard-pressed to turn a stroll down tree-lined streets with a cock-a-poo on the end of a pink rhinestone leash into a high tension scene without knowing a man with a glock is hiding in the shadows in the alley awaiting her approach.  
          Another constraint of the single POV character is that the sleuth has to do all the leg work herself.  Every interview with a witness, every tail on a suspect, every slip into a suspect’s house to look for clues.  This requires a carefully constructed timeline that enables the sleuth to be everywhere she needs to be.  It’s exhausting, for both the sleuth and the writer.
          So if all cozy mysteries follow all these guidelines, how does one go about differentiating themselves from all the others on the shelf?  In a word, VOICE!  The way the author tells the story to engage and entertain the reader is the single most important element to writing a bestselling cozy.  That, and the nature of the sleuth’s hobby. Good luck finding one, though.  It seems as if all the good ones are already taken. 

1 comment:

Randi Klein said...

Thanks! This is a great overview!